/ 26 October 2007

Game guru Will Wright wants to plug it in

''Education was always known as the kiss of death in the software industry. But I think you want to focus on getting the player interested and emotionally involved.'' Game designer Will Wright is responsible for some of the world's most famous titles -- but he's really excited the prospect of plugging them directly into his brain, he tells Bobbie Johnson.

Will Wright is one of the biggest names in gaming: the man behind Sim City and the world’s most popular game, The Sims. His next title, Spore, is due out next year. This week Wright was admitted into the fellowship of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and we caught up with him in London.

The United Kingdom has just started a government review into the effects of games on children. Do you think attitudes are starting to a shift?

I think there’s always been a generational divide between people who play games and people who don’t. As people get older you see more and more parents that played games as they were kids now playing games with their kids.

In some sense I think the cultural acceptance of games is inevitable just because people are going to have grown up having this technology.

As you get a broader set of people playing games, you get a broader set of games to appeal to those people. I think that’s the slow, inevitable process going on here.

It goes in fits and starts over time; if there’s a school shooting, it’s a case of ”Did they play games or not?”: you don’t really hear much about what movies they watch or what books they read. But 50 years ago that’s exactly what you heard, did they read To Kill a Mockingbird or whatever it is. They would blame social ills on anything that was at hand.

So when games become fully accepted, what takes their place in that cycle?

Who knows? At some point we’re going to have direct neural connections, where you plug the thing into your brain, and the first people who do that are going to be seen as social outcasts: how dare you do that to your body, it will be almost like tattoos or body piercing and parents will all be up in arms about it. Thirty years later those people will be the parents and it will be totally accepted.

Are you going to be one of those early adopters?

Oh, not right off the bat, no. But they actually have some interesting devices available commercially right now that involve reading your brainwaves and controlling software.

Did you take a conscious decision to build games that appeal to a very broad range of people?

As a creator, yes; although I don’t begrudge the other games: I love playing shoot-’em-up games, I really enjoy them — but it feels like that area is so overpopulated that as a game designer I’d rather work in an area that is under-represented. I’ve tended to work in areas that I feel it would be interesting for more people to go in.

My first game was a shoot-’em-up, but when I designed it I found that creating the world I was going to blow up was more interesting than blowing it up; that’s where I came to Sim City.

And what about the educational aspects? Many of the people who are worried about the affect of, say, Grand Theft Auto probably think that you make the ”right” sorts of games. I think we culturally disconnect the concepts of play and education, when play really is education and that’s how we developed it evolutionarily.

Education was always known as the kiss of death in the software industry. But I think you want to focus on getting the player interested and emotionally involved.

There’s an old quote that education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. If we can find ways to get people really motivated, that’s how you get them pulling information off the web, reading books, learning.

There’s a strong scientific element to many of your games. Why is that?

I’m very broadly interested in science as a lay person, and I read a lot of science that gets me interested in particular subjects.

I think the game industry could use spokespeople that try to represent the potential of gaming. The industry hasn’t even begun to realise its potential; we’re getting there very slowly, but in the meantime we need to be educating the public as to what this can eventually become. If we have more discussion about what games could be versus what they are right now, we might get there sooner.

From a kid’s point of view, gaming feels somewhat subversive. If the parents don’t like it, it must be cool. If the parents also liked it, it wouldn’t be cool and they’d try something else. So in some sense the games industry has a vested interest in keeping games culturally edgy, and there’s an element of truth there.

What games do you play? And do you play for fun or research?

I try to play innovative games that are coming out; I really love Guitar Hero, I play my Nintendo DS a lot, check out things on the Wii. With the exception of Advance Wars on my DS, there’s no one game that I spend a huge amount of time playing. I love Advance Wars; I used to play all these strategy games as a kid — Panzer Blitz, and all these old Avalon Hill games.

Somebody asked me what I thought next generation meant and what about the PlayStation 3 was next generation. The only next-gen system I’ve seen is the Wii; the PS3 and the Xbox 360 feel like better versions of the last, but pretty much the same game with incremental improvement. But the Wii feels like a major jump — not that the graphics are more powerful, but that it hits a completely different demographic. In some sense I see the Wii as the most significant thing that’s happened, at least on the console side, in quite a while.

So what set-up do you have at home?

We’ve got an Xbox 360 collecting dust in the background, a Wii hooked up that we use quite a bit. I don’t have a PS3. I still, for the most part, prefer playing games on the computer; to me the mouse is the best input device ever.

Every generation it’s like ”The PC’s dead! The PC’s dead!”. But it carries on growing when consoles are flat for five years. At the moment I can get better graphics on my PC than I can on the PS3.

We’re doing Spore on the Wii, and we did MySims. It takes significant. PS3 and Xbox 360 are similar enough that you can. So it comes down to what the interesting major platforms are and which markets we want to hit.

So you’re now approaching the finishing stages for Spore. Is this the toughest section, or the easiest?

In some ways this is the most difficult part of the process, because for so long you’ve been dealing with potential. It depends on how it’s ending up, and Spore is ending up very nicely — in some sense we’ve exceeded a lot of what we thought we would get. But there are minor differences in polishing that make a major difference in how people will perceive it.

There are a lot of little things that we’ve achieved that I didn’t think we would — things like procedural music, with computers composing music on the fly. In general it’s about how seamless we could make these different genres. Making it feel like a cohesive experience that the fairly average player could enjoy.

The most difficult thing we’ve experienced is hard to say. There are a lot of areas you could expand forever, but then you’d never ship it. It’s really trying to find the sweet spot between what you can do and what you want to do. — Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007